Blunkett faces battle over police reforms

The Queen's Speech: Crime
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Indy Politics

The police service looks likely to clash with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, over his plans to introduce wide-ranging changes to the way chief constables and rank-and-file officers operate.

Mr Blunkett wants to crack down on officers who take early retirement on spurious medical grounds and take bogus sick leave, change working practices, such as shift patterns, and compel chief constables to adopt new crime-fighting techniques in forces that are failing to reduce lawlessness. He also wants to set up a "standards unit" to monitor and compare the performances of police forces more closely and ensure that areas with poor clear-up and detection rates improve.

In what is likely to be a bruising encounter, the Home Secretary intends to adopt a "softly, softly", behind-the-scenes negotiating strategy, backed by a new Police Bill, which one source described as the "big stick" to force through some of the more controversial changes. Details of the Bill have yet to be decided, but it will give the Home Secretary the power to force the police service to toe the line and make what many ministers believe are long-needed reforms.

Mr Blunkett said: "I want to enable the police to deliver a professional, well managed and well trained service to the communities they serve. Much of this improvement can be achieved without legislation, but where it is needed we will reinforce negotiated change with measures to ensure radical improvements."

Chief constables and police associations are certain to resist some of the proposed changes, particularly those that undermine the force's autonomy and conditions of work, such as making officers patrol singly rather than in pairs.

The system that investigates allegation of police wrongdoing and corruption is also to be changed with the creation of a new more independent complaints commission that will use teams of civilian investigators to make inquiries into the most serious cases of alleged malpractice. The existing Police Complaints Authority will be replaced by the Independent Complaints Commission.

As expected new laws are to be introduced to allow the authorities to investigate and seize the assets of so called "untouchable" crime barons.

A draft Proceeds of Crime Bill has already been published and will set up a new Criminal Assets Recovery Agency. It will give new powers to civilian investigators to trace assets and examine bank accounts. A High Court hearing would only have to decide if money was from criminal activity according to the civil burden of proof ­ the balance of probability ­ rather than the criminal requirement of evidence beyond reasonable doubt.

Officials estimate the new agency could seize £650m a year and they have already identified 39 leading figures in the criminal underworld who have assets of £220m between them. It will also become an imprisonable offence for anyone, such as a spouse, who knows or suspects another person is involved in a crime, not to report that they are laundering money. The maximum penalty will be five years in jail.

Emergency measures introduced to ban suspected or convicted football hooligans from travelling abroad to watch matches are to be made permanent under the Football Disorder Bill. The police are able to apply for banning orders from magistrates against anyone they believe is likely to cause trouble as well as people already convicted of offences. Breaching the order is an arrestable offence carrying a possible six-month jail sentence and a £5,000 fine. The powers would falter in August next year if they were not included in primary legislation.

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